Go-Rilla Means War (2017)

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

One of the most impressive achievements of the curational experience is the dynamics of hybridity between the curator and the artist.  Some of the most stimulating experiences of the gallery, museum, online platform, come alive when this dynamic channels the real interest for the artist in a collaboration that merges efforts not only for a platform of exhibition, but with a collaborative experience, when the artist is allowed to roam free through innovative experiences of the aesthetics, aided skillfully by a professional whose work involves the formal act of creation. Thus, the dialectics or contingencies between the two integrated parts, become evident and add to the overall atmosphere, or feel of the program. This has been certainly the case in this online program + live online performance plus text and poetry from both parts, (and an upcoming publication),  from the corner of my eye by multidisciplinary artist, experimental filmmaker, and writer of African American, Filipino, and Chinese descents Crystal Z Campbell, curated and co-created with Almudena Escobar López, for the Harnett Gallery.

Contingency/dialectics is a duality that I would consider crucial with Campbell’s work. The Harnett exhibition, its particular organization of the program, shows Crystal’s work as an evolving art form with an inherent tension between identity and intimacy, between politics and landscape, between racial and post-colonial issues and the experience of the foreigner, the intruder or the witness. And maybe in the interstices of the program, lies this radical questioning that the filmmaker has about her own work, demonstrating that some of the most powerful declarations of the troubled unbalanced powers that are inherent in the questions of identity, comes from a experience of self-exploration, of situating oneself in front of a world with a cruel reality, or even with passages where their own identity is questioned in front of the experience of the other. As they demonstrated in their live performance (in lieu of making a proper analogy), Campbell is confronted by the artifacts they explores which are fragments of her own identity, while they dwells on issues of self-care, the foreign and the external gaze.

Each pair of new lenses, beckons me to look forward, weakening my periphery. How would it change my word, if I let my eye rest towards the side?
(from the corner of my eye, publication)


It’s a radical work of empathy, both internal and external. VIEWFINDER (2020) , for example, encompasses Crystal’s experience with the performative. Shot in a spa town in Sweden, the film is outlined by the presence of these black performers, which merge different identities as a deconstruction/reconstruction of the self: the worker (the vest), the colonizer (the collar), the classical dancer (the outfit), running around frantically through a peer, or inside of what seems to be a game/hunter room (bodies which Christina Beatty mentions in her essay for Mid-America Arts Alliance: The mere existence of the black and brown bodies featured throughout the film are monuments of resistance in a society that could have prevented their mothers from ever giving birth), or around a garden with an statue of Danuta Danielsson, The Woman with the Handbag, who hit a marching neo-Nazi with a handbag on 1985, immortalized in this gesture by photojournalist Hans Runesson (a gesture that would seem -paradoxically- problematic in a country with a history of racism, politics of eugenics, segregation, etc.)

The act of the body in relation to these spaces, objects, and what they contain, declares an intention of how to relate with a complicated history: the hunting trophy, the foreign town, the game room, the statue, are all parts of a complexity of very different issues. It’s a denounce, in an unexpected way, that of the intrinsic connection between an artist that inhabits the circumstances that troubles and becomes part of them, in a true dialectical construct. Being constructive as means of destroying paradigms and confronting personal and collective history, intertwined with a presence of bodies which reclaim their space in a hostile territory.

there is an elephant wearing a shoe that doesn’t fit
(from the corner of my eye, publication)

This radical questioning bounces back and forth in connection with A MEDITATION ON NATURE IN THE ABSENCE OF AN ECLIPSE (2017-2021) which dwells between a drone of a landscape of the same spa town in Sweden, and a resource of turning to ripped footage of advertising clips from different representations of the quotidian (watermarks included); an act of détournement which utilizes the resource of what Hito Steyerl has called the poor image as an act of democratization of the after-mentioned image, the reclaim of the significants from those pre-made visuals in search of a reconstruction of black identity. Campbell moves swiftly from her own filmed footage to appropriated footage, even collage, then incorporating audio from a newscast. This experience of blackness, again, is a reflective one and doesn’t shy away from the inherent troubles of the community, or them own personal experience which confronts the media image, a commodity image, with the manifestation of the pixel (the rugged image) in the shots of gardens, pools, trees creating a mixed version of a conflict residing in the mind of the creator.

Witness (2010)

This relation with appropriation and the poor image finds it apex in Witness (2010), which is Campbell’s first film, and also the last in the program. The urgency of Witness lies in what is left out of field, an inherent institutionalized violence that is not seen but heard (literally and figuratively), until Crystal acts on it by deconstructing the image and sound in a loud cry that comes as way more impactful that any newscast transmission could be. This transfer from 8mm to MiniDV is a strategical move that decomposes the image into this raw, very present, almost tactile approximation to the problem, something that reminds me of methods used by filmmakers like Laura Waddington (Border, Cargo), which also bestows her image the quality of the grainy materiality of digital as way of becoming closer to the subject matter. Again, is an exercise of radical empathy, such as the loop of Futures for Failures (2011), that reverts the demolition of a building alongside a tale of two friends being confronted by the alienating experience of death, a reflection of gentrification and its fatal consequences for marginalized communities, or in Go-rilla Means War (2017) which reclaims other manifestations of black identity before decomposing the image again. Here, the presence of the conflict with their personal identity becomes much more apparent in the final credits, listing the director as “unknown”. The idea of selfhood is questioned yet again, not only from the question of the true the author of the footage (Campbell appropriates a found 35mm film found at the legendary Slave Theatre in Brooklyn -an important data from the curational text- and builds a fiction from there) but also of who is enunciating, how, and to which means. Crystal is pulling apart the fabric of cinema, and through narration, finding new possibilities of relating to the moving image.

The intimate and the performative comes again with the figure of the clown in A Dark Story For Clowns (2009), a retelling of a Faulkner short story from the image of the Yoruban ere ibeji memorial figures for deceased twins. Again, this hybrid strategy, deals with the anthropological, but not in an ethnographic uninvolved point of view, but by means of turning to creation and performance to declare a position inside the fiction, a story that deals with issue of care, compassion, interrelation but also deals with the mythical and the power of ancient tribal history. Crystal’s work is full of open wounds, which they evidences but also tries to reclaim, in an open manifestation for all to see, interpellating our own role as spectators through the image. Finally, the curatorial effort by Almudena Escobar López in tandem with Campbell, has produced this outstanding work of love, which manifests itself as a final communion, the one of an inherent need of declaration, denounce, empathy and selfness, all through the traces of a light which has illuminated our screens, maybe not in the dark room, but even in its virtual version, still a declaration that can be summed up in the curated text that accompanies the showcase:

when I stare at the projector I taste the persistent square of light
inside my retina
I look again and the light makes my hands
my feet and my arms disappear
(from the corner of my eye, publication)

Crystal Z Campbell: from the corner of my eye will be online at Harnett Gallery until Monday night (March 22nd, 2021)